NEW YORK — The New York Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts are experiencing a return to their youth.
The originally beloved events were designed to educate new generations of music aficionados — something they accomplished in spades when Leonard Bernstein led the televised version in the 1960s and ’70s. However, the concerts have been considered marginal for years thanks to low ticket sales and stagnant creativity.
This season, however, a cadre of theater vets — including former “Avenue Q” star John Tartaglia — has rejuvenated the series with a bit of legit magic. Now a hybrid of classical compositions and family-friendly scenes, the program is recalling a glory not seen since Bernstein laid down his baton in 1973.
Case in point: The May 6 finale was the second of the year’s four concerts to sell out the Philharmonic’s 2,700-seat Avery Fisher Hall.
That’s great news for Theodore Wiprud, the Philharmonic’s director of education. For years, he says, the series wasn’t reaching as many young people as it might because the programming lacked coherence. Individual composers or conductors would arrive with whatever idea they had cobbled together for a concert, and there was no guarantee they would appeal to a school-aged crowd. As both education and entertainment, the perfs were unpredictable at best.
Wiprud knew the Young People’s Concerts needed to recapture Bernstein’s spirit. “He was a script writer, an educator, an artistic planner and an onstage personality,” he explains. “People have been saying we need to find the next Bernstein, but rather than wait for that to happen, we’ve put together a team that can emulate (his) talents and ideas.”
Along with Philharmonic staffers, that team notably includes Tartaglia, something of a celeb among the 6-12 demographic because of his starring role on the Disney Channel’s “Johnny and the Sprites.” He gives the events a familiar face, emceeing every show and wisecracking with auds before the curtain rises.
Tartaglia also has been using his acting chops, thanks to contributions from playwright Tom Dulack, best known for 1992’s “Breaking Legs.” Dulack, who also has a background in classical music, was brought onboard to craft a narrative shape not only for the individual performances, but also for the season as a whole.
After selecting the theme of “Who Makes Music” — the first concert centered on composers, the second on conductors, etc. — Dulack knew he had to keep his work closely integrated with the Philharmonic. “The preponderance of the teaching is in the music,” he says.
Dulack conceived several ways to hybridize the two genres. One concert, for instance, began with emerging composer Kevin Puts on a set designed to resemble his studio. During a 12-minute play, he composed a piece of music, and the orchestra performed each new section as he wrote it. In other shows, a conductor has given Tartaglia a music lesson and children have performed Dulack’s narration for Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite.”
There also have been experiments with stage lighting and giving auds their own mini-batons.
But despite these variations, all the concerts have maintained a professional cohesion that makes them far more attractive to ticket buyers. “There’s a buzz, and now people expect a good afternoon,” says Dulack.
That’s a buzz the Philharmonic hopes to maintain. Though Tartaglia and Dulack have yet to sign on for a second season — talks may begin this week — they’ve helped provide a template for how to rejuvenate an 80-year-old concert series.